CKep’s Top Films of 2012

‘Nuff said! So let’s get into it…

 

1. The Master

Written and Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (TWC)

Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams

One the year’s most challenging releases, Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master is a more than worthy follow-up to 2007’s There Will Be Blood, which among The Social Network and The Tree of Life, may be the greatest American film of the new century. Here, PTA channels Joaquin Phoenix into an enthralling cataclysm of character, a breathtaking, instantly iconic performance as a World War II vet who supplements his addictions to sex and toxic mix drinks with a new master – a charismatic philosopher played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, who has been developing a religious cult somewhat representing the origins of Scientology.

The film, captured through astonishing cinematography by Mihai Malăimare, Jr., becomes a widely scoped piece of art that examines human allegiance, however bizarre or commonplace it may be in execution, whether through memory, thought, spirit, physicality, or interaction with our fellow man. It’s terrifying and hilarious (Jonny Greenwood’s score is a haunting tone-setter), in addition to being multilayered and ambiguous, but never strays from the film that Anderson clearly wanted to make. This is his domain, one in which mindful allegiance by audience members isn’t enough. Plenty of filmmakers have ambition, but this, ladies and gents, is of a different sort. The Master asks for more than it gives, prompting certain audiences to float out to sea. Let this one wash over you. Give in, but then discover on your own terms. You will be rewarded with the best film of 2012.

On DVD/Blu-ray February 26.

 

2. Zero Dark Thirty

Directed by Kathryn Bigelow (Columbia)

Written by Mark Boal

Starring Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton

You can’t make everyone happy with a movie like this. Our government will always deny that credible information was received through torture, as is used here as a key plot device. Citizens will question our government for the amount of information received to craft such an elaborate piece of filmmaking, as well as complain that it is an indorsement of the Obama administration. These opinions remain somewhat irrelevant. Kathryn Bigelow, after becoming the first woman to win a Best Director Oscar with The Hurt Locker, has taken whatever information was received, and simply made an incredible film, as entertaining as it is powerful. I’ll never know how true Zero Dark Thirty was to the actual manhunt for Osama bin Laden, but I believe I am correctly assuming that this is more or less what went down (that said, this is no documentary).

The film does not portray the methods utilized for such an endeavor in a flattering light, nor does it denounce them. It instead presents the brutality of research and investigation under the worst circumstances, in pursuit of a seemingly unattainable goal; not only the decisions required of human beings, but the feelings that come from having to make them, especially when countless lives hang in the balance (on both sides of the equation). The film is paced impeccably well throughout its steady length, consistently dramatic until it concludes with a climax of staggering suspense.

Arguably, Zero Dark Thirty is an American landmark, showing not only how these continuously turbulent years have affected our nation, but individual people, as well. Jessica Chastain plays “the girl” who made it possible, and her dedication, in addition to the emotional, mental, and physical toll it takes, is played with an extraordinary sensibility. The film’s impact comes shining through this character, and to supplement her abilities, the performance by Jason Clarke as her co-worker is also fantastic. What Bigelow has brought to the table is a masterful piece of craftsmanship, in both substance and style. In a way, the making of Zero Dark Thirty has mirrored the daunting task that these characters are presented with. Mission accomplished. But in light of a future that will always be uncertain, to what extent do the ends justify the means?

Now in theaters.

 

3. Beasts of the Southern Wild

Written (with Lucy Alibar) and Directed by Benh Zeitlin (Fox Searchlight)

Starring Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry

I’m still amazed that this is Benh Zeitlin’s first feature-length film. In Beasts of the Southern Wild, he directs young Quvenzhané Wallis with the confidence of a maestro who has been settled within his respective art form for who knows how long. Displaying the universe through the eyes, ears, and thoughts of a young child in a post-Katrina bayou, Hushpuppy (Wallis) and her father (Dwight Henry) navigate through the harsh realities presented by their only home, supplemented by the surreal fantasies of a girl coming to grips with self-sufficiency.

The imagery is extraordinary in its ability to be both naturalistic and enchanting, backed by a heart-wrenching score by Zeitlin and composer Dan Romer. Drenched in alcohol, littered with mythical creatures, and certainly featuring the most real performances you will see this year, Beasts is an emotional hurricane that deserves the attention of your heart, soul, and mind; cinematic poetry with a rare sense of wonder.

Now on DVD/Blu-ray.

 

4. Les Misérables

Directed by Tom Hooper (Universal)

Written by William Nicholson, Eric Fellner, Debra Hayward, Cameron Mackintosh

Starring Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried

In a time when musicals are cut like rap videos, Tom Hooper’s rendition of Les Misérables looks like a masterpiece in comparison. The film is paced like a grand piece of music by its own definition, jumping from shot to shot as complement to the score’s dynamic transitions. A traditional narrative is substituted for a triumphant fusion of sight and sound,  allowing us to interpret onscreen events like a visual symphony. Featuring superb production design, costuming, and makeup effects, the film is an epic, beautifully rendered depiction of tragic mistreatment, defeated by an uncrushable human spirit, that which fails to diminish even after death. Heartbreaking and vigorously entertaining, this isn’t an easy one to forget.

In tradition of Les Misérables‘s musical structure, most dialogue is sung, much like the classic French musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. This style suits an artistically sound, visually splendorous story of love and rebellion, featuring remarkable performances by nearly the entire cast (Oscar nominees Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway are really given a chance to strut their stuff). Hooper recorded live audio for the musical performances, made even more impressive by the unbroken shots and close-ups in which he often uses to display them. At last, a musical that actually lingers on the performers long enough for us to be amazed by their talents. It isn’t easy for such an atypical film to exude power of this magnitude, but somehow, it works.

Now in theaters.

 

5. Silver Linings Playbook

Written and Directed by David O. Russell (TWC)

Starring Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Jacki Weaver

It takes a movie like Silver Linings Playbook to save modern romantic comedies from genre mediocrity, which is typically filled with mundane crap and indie flicks pretending to replicate how people actually behave. What distinguishes Silver Linings as one of the year’s best films rests in a screenplay (based on the novel by Matthew Quick) that simply does everything right, while still retaining unpredictability. David O. Russell’s movie stars a terrific, bipolar Bradley Cooper as Pat, a man attempting to reconnect with his wife, who has filed a restraining order after he viciously attacked her not-so-secret lover. The key lies in Jennifer Lawrence’s character, an impulsive woman with issues of her own. Meanwhile, Pat has taken house with his Philadelphia Eagles-obsessed father (Robert De Niro) and mother, played by Jacki Weaver. The whole lot is nominated for Oscars, and boy, do they deserve it.

While handling weighty, dramatic themes, the film is also delightfully comic, supplemented by the fact that there rarely appears a character we don’t like (the chemistry between Cooper and Lawrence is also extraordinary, as it should be). So offbeat, yet so completely human in its approach, the narrative soon strands the characters’ fates together in a film of unapologetic positivity. Silver Linings therefore transcends the feel-good film. By the time the credits roll, it has actually restored your faith in people.

Now in theaters.

 

6. Lincoln

Directed by Steven Spielberg (Touchstone)

Written by Tony Kushner

Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt

There is a time and place that calls for extraordinary leadership, a moment to be captured by one who is willing to make it his own. Spielberg captures such a moment with Lincoln, attempting to craft an immersive character study within a slim period of time – amongst the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, and the end of the Civil War. Daniel Day-Lewis gives the performance of the year as bearded Abe, escaping the perils of caricature through his projections of a man’s thought, personality, and aptitude, rather than supposed quirks and mannerisms. He commands the action onscreen, weaving through a terrific supporting cast, much as his political ingenuity weaves through unprecedented boundaries to draw a torn nation back together.

As if the screenplay weren’t unconventional enough for a biopic, Lincoln is a technical milestone. The production design and cinematography is somehow both lush and unflattering, and the representation of the time period so unwilling to weigh itself down in iconicity, that you can’t help but be sucked into Spielberg’s journey into American history. The dialogue consists mostly of political conversation, but is made riveting through directorial expertise. This film plants you directly into that moment, and by doing so, forces you to consider similar moments that our country will always face.

Now in theaters.

 

7. Django Unchained

Written and Directed by Quentin Tarantino (TWC)

Starring Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio

It has been noted that Django Unchained is the first of Tarantino’s films to be set in an era prior to cinema’s origins. Let it also be noted that this does nothing to prevent every capable reference to his genre and exploitation inspirations, this spaghetti western/blaxploitation hybrid utilizing such material for the purposes of harnessing his own ultraviolent, often hilarious look at one of American society’s most inhuman periods. And with such character!

Django (Jamie Foxx) plays a slave fatefully freed by a German bounty hunter, played by Christoph Waltz, who is quite opposed to such a lurid concept as slavery, and guides Django toward the fate of rescuing his wife (Kerry Washington) from an insanely charming, yet decidedly villainous plantation owner, Calvin Candie, played by Leonardo DiCaprio (who arguably gives the best performance in the film). Nearly as fantastic is Samuel L. Jackson as Candie’s former house slave, whose relationship with Django signifies a battle against all types of racism and dehumanization, even those purported by men who aren’t white, and have simply slipped into corruption along with the rest of society.

Robert Richardson’s cinematography utilizes aspects of budget-limited camerawork (quick zooms, overexposure, etc.) that go beyond stylistic flourishes; they enhance Tarantino’s film by visualizing a period in which things were as ugly in reality as such style often depicts its fictional, pulpy subject matter to be. That said, the landscape shots and interior sequences, minus any visual eccentricities, are impressively displayed, as well. Backed by a signature QT soundtrack that lives and breathes this film’s heat, Tarantino eventually leads us into a spectacularly action-filled climax, drenched in copious amounts of blood, and featuring some extended screams of pain. It is through these brutally violent, exaggerated elements of satire that we begin to recognize the scale of atrocity that slavery once brought upon our country, laced with racial epithets that we now sprinkle around just for the hell of it. And at the end of the day, it still manages to be fun. What an accomplishment.

Now in theaters.

 

8. Moonrise Kingdom

Written (with Roman Coppola) and Directed by Wes Anderson (Focus)

Starring Jared Gilman, Kara Hayward, Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Bill Murray

Along with Tarantino, Wes Anderson is a filmmaker whose style is so singular that it often presents worries of redundancy. Yet along with Django, this is a movie that leaps over stylistic expectations. Moonrise Kingdom is a delightful story of young love, Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward sharing the screen with one of the year’s best ensemble casts, filled with Anderson favorites. Shot on Super 16, the film is a colorful, nostalgic representation of inter-generational relationships, innocence, and empathy. Always hilarious and quite touching, Anderson reaches to audiences who grew up in any period of cinematic history.

Now on DVD/Blu-ray.

9. Looper

Written and Directed by Rian Johnson (FilmDistrict)

Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt

Snubbed for Best Original Screenplay, Rian Johnson’s Looper is one groovy story, shaking its head at the mistakes society repeatedly makes, and presenting an allegorical basis for how crime syndicates of the future get away with murder. This is modern science-fiction at its finest; Johnson’s depiction of a unique universe, visualized through elaborately stylish set design and cinematography. The narrative structure of the film is fascinating, driven by the premise of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character finding it necessary to kill his older self, played by Bruce Willis. The action, romance, and dark sense of humor blend with a love of the genre and a continuous sense of excitement, ultimately contorting the concept of time travel into a bit more than risky business.

Now on DVD/Blu-ray.

10. Skyfall

Directed by Sam Mendes (Columbia)

Written by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, John Logan

Starring Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Javier Bardem, Ralph Fiennes

Let’s get real for a second – I f**king love James Bond. That said, Bond 23, after enjoying the prior 22 several times over, is less of a film and more of a gift. While retaining the archetypal structure that was severely missing in Quantum of Solace (yet necessarily absent in Casino Royale), Daniel Craig portrays 007 as more of a human being than we have ever seen in the franchise. While this may be a scary thought for a character who is, from a certain standpoint, less of a man and more of an icon, it works because this is the moment that the Bond reboots, beginning with Casino Royale, have been awaiting – the chance for Craig’s character to fall to rock bottom amidst the tribulations of a very real, contemporary world, and resurrect himself; become an iconic addition to what is one of the greatest film series in the world, and in doing so, revitalize the franchise with a distinctly modern, yet familiar structure.

For all intensive purposes, it achieves this through an exploration of Bond’s past, and a representation of Judi Dench’s M as the only “Bond girl” this flick needs. From a technical standpoint, Sam Mendes’ direction is sleek and assured, and the cinematography by Roger Deakins an enticing, suave manipulation of light, shadow, and color (earning him a well-deserved Oscar nomination). From one set piece to the next, Skyfall is extraordinarily well-paced, advanced through novel action sequences, and features yet another dastardly performance by Javier Bardem. I agree with Adele – “LET THE SKYFALLL!” Because it is only when our British folk hero falls and recovers, that after 50 years, we may truly be rest-assured in his immortality.

Now in theaters.

 

HONORABLE MENTIONS

Because ten will never be enough.

 

21 Jump Street

Directed by Phil Lord, Chris Miller (Columbia)

Written by Michael Bacall

Starring Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum

One of the best mainstream comedies in years. Self-reflexive, hilarious, and surprisingly knowledgable about the subject matter it makes fun of (mainly current high school culture), Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum invite you to like them even more than you previously did.

Now on DVD/Blu-ray.

Argo

Directed by Ben Affleck (Warner Bros.)

Written by Chris Terrio

Starring Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, John Goodman

Argo f**k yourself. Is there really more to be said?

On DVD/Blu-ray February 19.

Bernie

Written (with Skip Hollandsworth) and Directed by Richard Linklater (Millennium)

Starring Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine, Matthew McConaughey

Remember Jack Black? After seeing Bernie, Richard Linklater’s fun, eerily moving docudrama of moral investigation, you’ll wonder why he doesn’t get more roles this fabulous.

Now on DVD/Blu-ray.

Cosmopolis

Written and Directed by David Cronenberg (eOne)

Starring Robert Pattinson, Paul Giamatti

Twilight fans, stay away. Econ and Philosophy students, take a hard look.

Now on DVD/Blu-ray.

The Dark Knight Rises [IMAX]

Written (with Jonathon Nolan) and Directed by Christopher Nolan (Warner Bros.)

Starring Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, Anne Hathaway, Joseph Gordon-Levitt

A ravishing conclusion to a one-of-a-kind trilogy.

Now on DVD/Blu-ray.

Flight

Directed by Robert Zemeckis (Paramount)

Written by John Gatins

Starring Denzel Washington, Don Cheadle, Kelly Reilly, John Goodman

An addiction drama that continues to prove Robert Zemeckis’ flair for staging airplane crashes, while presenting Denzel Washington, in one of his best performances, as the alcoholic pilot. Along with Argo, it’s also a staple film in the resurrection of John Goodman. To any who deny his brilliance, “you’re out of your element.”

On DVD/Blu-ray February 5.

Killer Joe

Directed by William Friedkin (LD)

Written by Tracy Letts

Starring Matthew McConaughey, Emile Hirsch, Thomas Haden Church

Hilariously twisted, this is a theatrical slice of near-brilliance. Plus, I’ve been waiting my entire life for the appropriate usage of Clarence Carter’s “Strokin” in a movie. It only comes down to your definition of “appropriate.”

Now on DVD/Blu-ray.

Life of Pi [3D]

Directed by Ang Lee (20th Century Fox)

Written by David Magee

Starring Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan

Will Ang Lee’s latest make you believe in God? It sure will make you believe in something. Enraptured in gorgeous, three-dimensional landscapes, the title character’s cross-sea journey with a Bengal tiger is a spiritual experience, clothed in visual wonder, and representative of storytelling’s role in defining our humanity. You’ll certainly take an extra glance at the animals in your own life. And if the film affects you deeply enough, you’ll maybe even take a look at yourself.

Now in theaters.

The rest of the bunch…

The Amazing Spider-Man [3/5], Arbitrage [4/5], The Avengers [4/5], Battleship [2/5]*, The Bourne Legacy [3/5]*, The Cabin in the Woods [3.5/5], Chronicle [4/5], End of Watch [3.5/5], The Expendables 2 [2.5/5], The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey [HFR 3D; 4/5], The Hunger Games [3.5/5], Iron Sky [3.5/5], Killing Them Softly [3.5/5], Lawless [3.5/5], Magic Mike [4/5], Men in Black 3 [3/5]*, Paranormal Activity 4 [2/5], Piranha 3DD [2/5], Prometheus [3D; 4/5], The Raid: Redemption [3.5/5], Safety Not Guaranteed [3.5/5], Silent House [2.5/5]*, Ted [4/5]*, V/H/S [3.5/5]

*A rating that has changed after my initial review, either after a second viewing or reevaluation.

 

What has sadly remained unseen…

Amour, Anna Karenina, Berberian Sound Studio, Brave, The Campaign, Cloud Atlas, Coriolanus, The Deep Blue Sea, Detropia, Dredd [3D], Easy Money, Frankenweenie [3D], Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance [3D], The Grey, Haywire, Hitchcock, Holy Motors, Hyde Park on Hudson, The Impossible, The Imposter, The Intouchables, Jack Reacher, Katy Perry: Part of Me [3D], The Man with the Iron Fists, Not Fade Away, The Paperboy, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Rampart, Room 237, A Royal Affair, Rust and Bone, Samsara, Searching for Sugar Man, The Sessions, Seven Psychopaths, This is Not a Film, To Rome with Love

Thanks for reading! Hopefully you’ll agree that 2013 certainly has A LOT to live up to.

“We do not run The Artifice, you do.”

Hey guys, you should probably check out The Artifice … and not just because I’m writing for it now. This writer-maintained site, launched on November 7th, covers a wide variety of art and entertainment, which should only become more expansive as it reaches the next phase (The Artifice is in its beta stage right now, meaning some features will soon work with greater efficiency, while seemingly empty sections will eventually become overflowing auras of content). Enjoy some of the great articles already online, with links to two of mine posted below!

P.S. – Although all articles written for The Artifice must be original, don’t expect this blog to be any more neglected than it already has. Although I think I’ve sufficiently discussed both Lincoln and Flight in the second article above, the season will bring forth its tradition of bountiful, cinematic delights, enough to fill both The Artifice and my personal blog with necessary coverage.

 

Resurrecting the Infinite

Skyfall (2012)     ★★★★ 1/2

Directed by Sam Mendes (MGM / Columbia)

http://images.wikia.com/jamesbond/images/1/1c/Skyfall_teaser_poster_(real).jpgPrepare for the fastest two hours and twenty-three minutes of your life. Such is the awesome embrace of Skyfall, the 23rd film featuring Ian Fleming’s beloved James Bond, and one of the very best entries in a cinematic legacy of remarkable endurance. As a lifelong fan of 007, I can say with complete confidence that upon the franchise’s 50th anniversary outing, I shed a tear with Mr. Bond.

In part of the assured direction by Sam Mendes, the film is a flesh-and-blood burst of action and emotion, alluding to the great archetypes of Bond films past, while maintaining a narrative that is surprisingly unpredictable. The screenplay, a collaborative effort between series vets Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, with the addition of Oscar-nominated screenwriter John Logan (Hugo, Gladiator), features essentially the most meaningful characterizations that have ever been in a Bond film, laced with breathtaking action sequences that serve to advance the narrative; one never gets the impression that the film simply exists to jump from one stunt to the next.

The movie is instead an examination of what makes a pop culture icon legendary, and explores the concept of returning to your roots as a necessary step for advancement. Daniel Craig, slipping into that tux for the third time, is now Bond in both body and soul, encompassing the most humane version of the character to date. And as MI6 is threatened by former operative Raoul Silva (an instantly classic performance by Javier Bardem), Bond’s relationship with M (Judi Dench) is brought under the spotlight. Backed by supporting characters played by Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris, Albert Finney, and Ben Whishaw as a young installation of Q (in contrast, Desmond Llewelyn was 85 in his last appearance as the much-adored character), Skyfall undoubtedly becomes a colorful template for pitch-perfect, blockbuster-caliber performances.

 

I’ll be the first to tell you that Craig will never, ever be Connery. But his performance as Bond, steadily built to satisfaction through Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, is by far the most interesting, and in Skyfall, he accomplishes what he has been striving for all along. Craig plays 007 as an actual person; one who has been hardened by events that any of Bond’s prior surrogates would have simply shrugged off with a quip. Yet he still has charm and humor, components that if nonexistent, would sink this “modern” interpretation. Craig’s Bond is a man who is continuously plagued with anger and sadness, yet is able to rise above them for dedication to his job, country, and hope for a better world. He cannot afford to be sinless, but we detect that he actually feels each sin he commits (despite his attempts to display the contrary), and cares for the people who are meaningful in his life. He makes that joke, reels in those chicks, and tops it off with a martini because these things make him feel like a real man, instead of a cold-blooded killer. Bond is forced to portray the latter image, but we, as his loyal audience, are proud to know the truth.

And God bless the genius who decided to cast Judi Dench as M back in 1995, the 77-year-old actress carrying her seventh performance as Bond’s superior with the grace of a true master. The relationship between she and Bond in this film is the most touching element of a 007 movie since the character’s romantic scenario in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, albeit much better developed. These are two people hopelessly devoted to the same cause, and despite necessary decisions they may make that impact the other’s fate (and the occasionally antagonistic interchange), this relationship goes beyond professional. M and Bond complete each other because they need one another; their respective roles are necessary for each to feel the satisfaction of saving England, again and again. And whilst sharing this love of country, how could they not be emotionally linked?

Skyfall does have its share of female characters (Naomie Harris tends to be a bit awesome), but aside from Dench, the big talk of Bond 23 will be his possibly homosexual antagonist, Bardem hoping to craft the character into a quintessential nemesis of 007. To be blunt, he succeeds. After a slew of enemies far too normal (who often have conquests far too absurd), Raoul Silva presents a scheme with exclusively personal motivation. Bardem, while not stealing scenes away from Craig, shines every moment he is onscreen, formulating a uniquely charismatic personality with distinguished quirks. All the essential components are there – the physical deformity, haunting past, sinister humor, and ultimately, a decent into insanity that provokes evil acts. Curiously enough, he also earns a tinge of our sympathy.

 

The story here isn’t anything particularly ingenious, but it functions superbly as an allegory for the series overall, and is paced with incredible expertise. A major concern of mine coming into Skyfall was something that I once thought somewhat trivial, but was actually quite distracted by in Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace – product placement. It has been said that Sam Mendes’ film couldn’t have been made without the Heineken plug (MGM finally went bankrupt throughout the film’s strenuous path to the silver screen), but thankfully, its spare usage remains natural, and Bond’s iconic drink is still served, a subtle moment that will make fans grin. Other familiar brands also pop up every once in awhile, but remain a forgivable aspect of what is arguably a fantastic action film, supplemented by both Thomas Newman’s unique, tone-setting score, and the hypnotic title song by Adele.

Featuring cinematography by Roger Deakins, who has shot over ten features with the Coen brothers, Skyfall features camerawork that is staggeringly beautiful, harnessed by Mendes into a terrifically cinematic experience (although you have to wonder, did we really need so many shots of the actors from behind?). The action sequences and set pieces match the caliber we have come to expect from Bond, although they are incorporated more naturalistically here. The film actually utilizes CGI to its advantage, adding an element of comic-book adventure that saves the series from the trap of brooding, Bourne-like action. Skyfall thankfully recognizes its own episodic nature, representing James Bond as the logic-transcending figure that is James Bond, while simultaneously placing itself in an imperfect world that mirrors our own anxieties.

 

Coming with the territory is dialogue that is sometimes annoyingly frank; we know that “finding the list” is essential, M. A note to screenwriters everywhere – if she’s a good enough actress, you don’t have to make her say it! We will, as we frequently do with a performer as sensational as Dench, see the line written all over her face. It’s also slightly frustrating that it has taken the “rebooted” series three movies to finally arrive at where it wants to be – that is, containing all the original elements of the Bond films, yet in a 21st century context. There is, however, something spectacularly rewarding about things that are gradually unveiled in Skyfall, 50 years after Connery first shot a Walther PPK. If you’re a Bond fan, the film’s resolution will leave you in bliss. If you’re a newcomer, damned if you won’t notice something special going on.

Skyfall is as much a journey into the past as it is a triumphant sign of what is to come. Our society, our lives themselves, are bound by the necessity of storytelling as an element of the human experience. Personal to us are the characters that inhabit those stories, maybe because they represent pieces of ourselves. And if a character is strong enough, he or she will live forever in our hearts and minds. But while Count Dracula may be killed with a stake through the heart, it is unlikely that James Bond will ever take a fatal bullet. He is a character we have chosen to make infinite, even in a physical sense. And despite troublesome fluctuations that have occurred throughout the series over several decades, we will always bring him back. Because we need these stories, and most of all, we need the character that makes it all worth coming back for.

50 years is a long time. Let’s raise our martini glasses and toast to another.

CKEP’S VERDICT – 4.5/5

Creative Control

The Master (2012)     ★★★★★

Written & Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (The Weinstein Company)

Imagine three of contemporary cinema’s most talented actors, and then place them at the mercy of a filmmaker who is exactly what the title would suggest. The Master is not only significant in its challenging outlook of men who domineer and those who wander, but also as an example of what happens when we allow an accomplished auteur of the craft, such as Paul Thomas Anderson, to make the exact film he feels needs to be made. It’s movies like these that simply restore your faith in modern art.

This is a narrative that bypasses the human desire to classify and categorize information, to make sense of things that sometimes cannot be understood. It doesn’t neatly tie story elements and themes into a nifty little package, instead serving to provoke inevitable discussion. Screened at select theaters in 70mm, The Master is an all-enveloping source of beauty, a devastatingly potent, hauntingly funny movie that refuses to tell you what to think or feel. The tone we experience is nearly Kubrickian in nature, if not for the style and content that is undeniably Anderson’s own.

Amidst Mihai Malaimare, Jr.’s breathtaking cinematography is Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), an alcoholic (and mentally afflicted) World War II veteran who drunkenly stumbles upon the yacht of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a writer and philosopher (married to Amy Adams’ character) who is currently spreading word of a new religious movement, a nod to the origins of Scientology. Dodd soon finds inspiration within Quell, as the socially inept victim becomes a more integral member of “The Cause.”

Phoenix, following his self-parodying “break” from Hollywood for his rap-based mockumentary, is extraordinary. Anderson frames many scenes of dialogue by cutting between long-held close-ups of each actor, and there is not one moment when Phoenix isn’t astonishing. Between the paralyzed scowl on one side of his face, scruffy, nonsensical dialect, drunken stagger, and raw conveyance of human emotion / physicality at its most unrestrained, Joaquin is nothing less than perfect, and his character, one that will not be soon forgotten.

As for Hoffman’s performance as Dodd, partially inspired by L. Ron Hubbard, perfection also seems an easy word to throw around. The scenes he shares with Phoenix present a groundbreaking high for onscreen character interactions. This is a man who has dictated power to himself, refusing to accompany the desire of any master but himself. The foundation for his movement is even derived by the concept of past lives, things that have defined us against our current will. We rarely ask whether Dodd actually believes the things he pronounces, mostly because there are so many other questions to be asked.

Lancaster Dodd is a man with such a strong point-of-view regarding human life, that he will go so far as to broadcast radical theories in order to promote his self-believed genius. Adams, as his spouse Peggy, is also staggeringly good. Her support of her husband comes not only from love but of an undying desire to build herself up alongside him, to become immortals amongst those like Freddie, who seemed destined to roam without purpose. Dodd is a charismatic narcissist, claiming to have all the answers and blowing up when his theories are questioned, possibly because he is reminded that they have no root in logic. He comes to love Freddie because he is an ideal subject, one who he hopes can be conditioned in a manner that he seeks to enact upon all humankind. Yet there is a glimmer of hope in Anderson’s handling of the situation; we come to find that Dodd may actually appreciate the man, not just what he represents.

Peggy comes between them as a foreseer of logic in their developing relationship, displaying the image of cutesy housewife, but enacting the aggression necessary for the advancement of The Cause. It is obvious what attracts Freddie to Dodd’s cult, mainly because it involves elements of life that he has been severely lacking – community, structure, a philosophical code, etc. The scenes in which Dodd and his followers manipulate Freddie into commission are deeply saddening, effectively portrayed moments of how a man can be contorted into something he may subconsciously want, but is simply not built for. On that note, I was glad with the approach the film took of not denouncing the moral travesties of cult behavior, but instead observing one man’s experience within such a group.

Anderson matches his penetrative storytelling ability with visual splendor, swapping between every imaginable type of shot, and playing with focus and lenses like a true craftsman (you can tell that he and Malaimare always knew exactly what they wanted to do with the camera). He utilizes his iconic, sweeping camera movements in situations that are essentially ideal to the technique, such as an early scene when Quell assaults a department store customer. He holds shots long enough that we may feel like observers watching motion within a framed work of art, yet somehow being able to obtain a plentiful chunk of wisdom within each instance. There are also the previously mentioned close-ups, in which we are able to see just how talented these actors are, and how deserving they are of individual Oscars.

The Master is arguably a slow-paced film, but its narrative flow, the seamless transitions between both cinematic technique and narrative elements (there are a couple of scenes that can be interpreted as fantasy sequences, or moments displaced from time) is never less than mesmerizing. Give credit to editors Leslie Jones and Peter McNulty, and obviously, Anderson’s script for containing such juicy material in the first place. Anderson knew that he didn’t want to exploit his ideas, but rather provoke the audience to make its own decisions. This choice is exponentially effective, and yes, the dark humor and elaborate symbolism actually do work. Also superb is the score by Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood, who collaborated with Anderson on There Will Be Blood. The tone it conveys is beyond words, and the film itself, having incorporated each of these elements, feels like a hypnotic journey into the human soul.

There is a scene (possibly the film’s best) soon after Freddie meets Dodd, where Hoffman’s character drills the emotionally torn veteran with psychological questions; a “Processing” exercise intended to relieve Freddie of traumatic events, emotions, and memories that have occurred in his present life, and in succession, will allow him to discover the “self” that is present across all existence. At least that’s the way I interpret it, and despite Freddie’s answering of Dodd’s questions in the best way he can, it becomes clear that he may never reach that point of self-knowledge. The film comes to a conclusion that many will denounce as unfulfilling, and leaves many questions unanswered. But hey, that’s life, and it seems to be what Anderson’s been going for all along.

Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love, There Will Be Blood, and his seemingly forgotten debut, Hard Eight, have all received their share of praise, and it should come as no surprise that the 42-year-old is considered by many critics as the greatest American director working today. Although it will baffle its share of viewers (abiding by one of many intended aspects), The Master excites me for many reasons. In particular, new generations of filmgoers will see this movie, and as long as we have wonderful artists like Anderson in the early 21st century, new blood will obtain their share of influence.

At one point in The Master, Dodd relays onto Freddie a bit of wisdom that may actually make sense, and in reality, couldn’t be more true. He tells Freddie, “If you figure out a way to live without a master, any master, be sure to let the rest of us know, for you would be the first in the history of the world.” Before Freddie went out to sea, love was his master, having hoped to spend the rest of his life with the girl who swept him off his feet. Then it was his country. And now, in a post-war world of utter confusion, it is Dodd. And throughout each transfer, sex, violence, and booze have been along for the ride. What will be the next master, or is Freddie a man who is simply fated to wander from one to the other?

Dodd hopes to place Freddie’s life within his own hands, as he does with all those he teaches. But he also wants to dictate them, shape them, mold them in his own image. To be a god. And what could be more hypocritical than that? As Dodd’s quote exemplifies, no man is free from this basic principle. The most impactful master in Dodd’s life is the drive associated with becoming his own. Obsession, inquisition, the desire to know, to win. Not all men are treated by life equally, but if we stop to look at factors that come to define who we are, leader or not, we begin to discover shared facts of humanity. The Cause is an extended metaphor, and the film of Paul Thomas Anderson, an exquisite reflection on what it means to be adrift in this strange world. It’s a remarkable piece of cinema, one that requires an audience-filmmaker relationship of enduring strength. Give yourself to The Master, and it will give itself to you.

CKEP’S VERDICT – 5/5

Lost in Time

Looper (2012)     ★★★★ 1/2

Written & Directed by Rian Johnson (FilmDistrict)

https://i2.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/0/0a/Looper_poster.jpgAll things considered, please allow me to keep my review of Looper rather concise. Writer/director Rian Johnson’s third film is not only terrific sci-fi, but as of yet, my favorite film of the year behind Beasts of the Southern Wild. Especially for the first hour, Johnson’s screenplay is so packed with narrative tricks and stylistic boldness, it simply takes one’s breath away. Backed by impressive set design, the intricacies of his self-created world implement heady plot elements, pulpy action, dark humor, a touch of romance, impressive cinematography, sheer ingenuity, and inspiration from other great works of science-fiction.

Although the film continues to lose steam as it reaches its not-too-shocking (yet still satisfactory) conclusion, Looper is a crafty picture that thrills simply on the sensibilities of its killer style, charming those who love movies through a blessed exercise in creativity. And as Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, and Emily Blunt enact the principle characters with warmth and conviction, Johnson’s film becomes a thought-provoking allegory for humanity being caught in one giant loop, making the same mistakes again, again, and again. Additionally, the filmmaker’s interpretation of time travel (which manages to be both direct and subjective) provides the chance to make a momentous “correction” within the narrative. To a less ludicrous extent, our own present also offers plenty of these opportunities; those to benefit our current time, and most importantly, build toward a future where empathy is a feasible alternative to self-actualization.

CKEP’S VERDICT – 4.5/5

Chaos Reigns

I understand that the following material doesn’t exactly qualify as film criticism, but to be perfectly honest, the first month of sophomore year has severely diminished my ability to consistently post reviews. So consider this post a memoir of my cinematic experiences since arriving at Virginia Tech in late August. And expect a resurrection from blog neglect sometime soon!

 

Lawless (2012)     ★★★ 1/2

Directed by John Hillcoat (The Weinstein Company)

I’m no artist. But in this case, my lack of talent will have to suffice for the lack of a proper review. To be brief, this cast is worthy of the admission price. Although this is surely Lawless‘s most defining feature, the cinematography by Benoit Delhomme captures gorgeous footage of what we are led to believe is Franklin County, aided by John Hillcoat’s confident direction. Yet the film arguably fails in its quest to reach Godfather status, an awkward narrative preventing the movie from capitalizing on the dramatic weight characteristic of the great gangster films. It attempts to have a uniting principle, but this theming is ultimately weaker than the pleasure derived from incredible performances and bleak sequences of Prohibition-era carnage. Good thing it’s also a lot fun.

CKEP’S VERDICT – 3.5/5

 

Detropia (2012)

Directed by Heidi Ewing & Rachel Grady (Loki Films)

From the documentary team that directed the Acadamy Award-nominated Jesus Camp, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s Detropia focuses on the deterioration of Detroit through free-form, non-fiction narrative. Our Department of Theatre & Cinema was fortunate enough to host Grady for a screening of her film, which unfortunately, I was unable to attend (considering that I had two exams the following day, this wasn’t the ideal evening for such an awesome event). However, Grady did speak to my History of Drama & Theatre class earlier in the day, a high point being her discussion of the film’s opening sequence. My words of praise can’t possibly do it justice. So if you find yourself in a position where seeing Detropia is a viable option, DO IT. I’ll live vicariously through you, and we’ll both end up happy.

Check out the trailer…

DETROPIA Trailer from Loki Films on Vimeo.

Bourne Retains an Identity

The Bourne Legacy (2012)     ★★★ 1/2

Directed by Tony Gilroy (Universal Pictures)

Walking in, my most disconcerting thought regarding The Bourne Legacy was that another may follow, considering that even this first expansion of the original trilogy (which wrapped itself up rather nicely in 2007) seemingly had nowhere to go. Universal therefore made a grand decision in hiring the co-writer of the first three films, Tony Gilroy, to direct. Featuring a screenplay written by Gilroy and his brother, Dan, in addition to editing by his second brother, John, The Bourne Legacy truly is a family affair, helmed by a man who knows how to build upon a franchise he had a tremendous stake in … and still does.

Alas, we have no Matt Damon, but Jeremy Renner, as newly introduced protagonist Aaron Cross, gives a commanding performance. And as opposed to Damon’s vulnerable intensity, Renner is successful in delivering a character that is compelling for different reasons. Meanwhile, Gilroy’s direction provides the perfect balance between the stylization of Doug Liman’s original (which in my opinion, remains the weakest film of the four), and the superior, more naturalistically violent sequels by Paul Greengrass. In Legacy, the quick-cut action sequences are surprisingly well-edited, delivering rapid moments of intensity that contrast with a film of much slower pace than its predecessors.

The screenplay, while blending much of the narrative with the events of The Bourne Ultimatum, is clever to the extent that it is consistently thrilling, despite containing relatively thin plotting (which becomes clear in a rather flimsy third act). Many would say that Damon was the heart of the series, and they would probably be right. But there is enough interesting material here to believe that if Gilroy continues to expand this universe (while still retaining the presence of both Jason Bourne and the impact of his character, which is done phenomenally here), there may still be life in what started as a bizarre case of amnesia.

As Cross, Renner plays a black ops agent in a program similar to the one that bred Bourne, and that which faces exposure after the impactful events of Ultimatum. Only him and Dr. Martha Shearing (Rachel Weisz) remain after a CIA attempt to destroy all human evidence, an escapade led by operations head Eric Beyer (Edward Norton). Renner may lack Damon’s questioning gaze, but he feels completely right for this new role; a man who must acquire the ferocity of a lone wolf, while retaining the humanity that his superiors abandon.

Thankfully, Cross and Weisz’s character aren’t cheapened by becoming immediate lovers, but they do share an interest in one another that goes beyond their mutual desire to stay alive. They have both become casualities of the government cleaning up its messes, and despite whether or not they are attracted to each other, their mutual hope fuels them in a quest to escape bureaucratic evil. Both performances are sharp, but the real scene-stealer is Norton, whose character is simply required to forgo making moral decisions.

This theme of the Bourne films continues here, and is executed just as well. The government creates victims in its attempt to provide elaborate national security, but fails to cover its tracks when one of those victims (with semi-superhuman abilities) fights back. Jason Bourne had identity issues; plus they just wouldn’t leave the poor guy alone. Aaron Cross just wants to break from the absurdity. Therefore, there’s no hero / villain relationship between himself and Ed Norton, there’s simply two men doing what they believe must be done. The one scene they share together is fantastic, and despite not having any other confrontation, their conflicting interests remain as strong in the script as the spirit of Jason Bourne.

Legacy‘s got legs to stand on, mostly because Gilroy found the right frame of reference in which to build a sequel. But if he hopes to expand the series even further, things are gonna have to get inventive. His film has few twists to speak of, and along with Damon, the densly-plotted intrigue of the prior two films is sorely missing. In fact, not enough really happens in The Bourne Legacy, but as an action film, it has enough layers of subtext to be as dramatically consistent as it is thrilling in several action sequences and moments of suspense.

Many opening scenes are set in Alaska, and feature story material (and a touch of symbolism) that is far different from anything else we have seen in the Bourne franchise. In contradiction, the film tends to show weakness in its retread of situations and dialogue that seem to nearly parody dramatic intricacies of the series. A rather implausible plot development involving a super-assassin is one such example; an unexplored complication lending itself to an abrupt resolution. At least Moby’s “Extreme Ways” plays in the end credits, once again. But of course, a little extra juice is slapped on the now-classic tune. I then return to my initial thought, and wonder what lies beyond Legacy. What I’m looking for is the next track, but in the meantime, who doesn’t enjoy a good remix?

CKEP’S VERDICT – 3.5/5

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